15 February 2010

Verbier With Mario

What's the best way to ski Verbier? With an Italian, of course.

After a few email exchanges and a missed first opportunity finally I had the chance to ski with Mario, a continent skipping Italian who currently resides in Scheveningen, Netherlands. There is a distinct lack of elevation in the Netherlands so the winter finds him racing out of country and into the Alps as often as time and work permit. He was gracious enough to invite me along on one of his "hit and run" weekends and I'm the better person for it.

Verbier is only my second major resort in the Alps that I've skied, Chamonix the first. The lift pass expense of these massive complexes (about $70 U.S. dollars) plus the driving time, tolls, gas, food, and (bien sur) après-ski activities make regular outings, with or without family, prohibitive. Special occasions are allowed, though, and a chance to meet and ski with a western Alps regular was special enough. I left home promptly at seven to meet Mario at the gondola in Le Châble promptly at nine so we could promptly be whisked up to Mont Fort (3330m/11,000ft) at the top of Verbier. Voilà!

The views of the Grand Combin, Rosablanche, and the Mont Blanc all obscured by a single jet stream:

Other than skiing, we didn't really have any objectives for the day. Mario changed all of that when he suggested skiing off the backside of Mont Fort. I hardly had any idea where I was let alone what that meant. He explained. I complied.

Skiing off the backside of Mont Fort is decidedly "out-of-bounds." It means skiing some steep northeast facing couloirs down and around the entire Mont Fort massif, a descent of about 1600 meters/5250 feet. Yes, Ma, we had our avalanche gear with us. The weather reports said low visibility, cold temperatures, and possible snow flurries. One out of three ain't bad.

Below the top couloirs were giant, bumpy snowfields, cliffs with tighter chutes, and an endless array of winter fun options. The snow was about perfect and would rival any low-moisture white fluff that Utah could cultivate.

We made the long slog around the Lac de Cleuson just as (as predicted) the clouds blew in and snowflakes started to drop. Coincidentally, we also made it out and back to the resort just in time for our first vin chaud break. Italian timing is impeccable.

From there we headed back close to the top, down a few short pistes to catch a few more short chairs - we were completely enclosed in clouds at this point and I had no idea where I was going - all in an effort to reach the Lac des Vaux and Vallon d'Arbi areas, also off-piste but this time in the trees. From there it was up and over the Savoleyres area and back down to the village of Verbier. Two runs, one fantastic day.

I like to ski with people who, like me, view skiing as less a competition and more as a lifestyle. At the risk of sounding hokey and/or overly sentimental and/or pop philosophical (all criticisms I accept), skiing, for me, is a holistic endeavor. The sum of its parts are weighed more importantly than the parts themselves (snow quality, vertical feet/meters skied, speed, etc.) and each part influences and are influenced by the other. There is no cherry picking in skiing; it is best served whole.

Maybe it's the quality over quantity idea. Maybe I'm just older and more comfortable with my skiing. It seems like we felt secure enough with each other to do things that few others at Verbier were doing that day but we did so at a nice, balanced pace. I suppose, too, we could have skied harder and faster and skipped the afternoon break and quit later, which would have canceled the second phase of our après-ski adventure. But I'm glad we didn't. The companionship, the snow, the wine breaks, the vertical meters, and the pace were just about right and I look forward to repeating the combined experience again.

With one caveat, however: next time I want in on the raclette part.

Grazie per la bella giornata, Mario! And thanks for the pictures, too.

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